COLUMBIA, MO. • With the tone of the season hinging on Mizzou trying to win on the road against a ranked team for the first time since 1997 on Saturday at No. 20 Kansas State, the Tigers appear to hold at least one nice advantage.
K-State (4-0) is one of the worst passing teams in the nation, and Mizzou seems well-fortified to counter KSU's running niche. The Wildcats grind out 217.25 yards a game on the ground, but MU allows an average of just 87.
So maybe an MU defense that has been riddled for 1,084 yards and 75 points in its two losses has a chance to corral KSU the way it did Miami (Ohio) and Western Illinois, which mustered six points between them.
Yet it may not quite be as simple as that for the Tigers, whose defense hasn't been the safety net it was expected to be.
For one thing, Arizona State and Oklahoma probably ran less than they might have just because their way was so easy by air: The Sun Devils threw for 388 yards, the Sooners 448.
For another, there's Bill Snyder, the resourceful Kansas State coach.
"He's going to find out what hurt you in the past and use that to exploit you, to see if you corrected your mistakes," Mizzou defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said, adding, "I guess Phil Jackson was the Zen master. He's the scheme-master. He will scheme you to death, and he's damned good at it."
Even with quarterback Colin Klein rated ninth among 10 Big 12 passers and KSU 115th in the nation in passing yards a game (130.75), that means MU will have to be alert for KSU to probe its wobbly pass defense.
"He's not just throw when he has to throw or throw to surprise you," Steckel said. "He keeps you off-balance."
And that means Mizzou can't simply sell out for the run, which will make for a true test of MU's rush defense against Klein (105.8 rushing yards a game) and running back John Hubert (85.8 a game).
"I don't think (Klein has) got a lot of great wiggle, but I think he's very deceptive with his speed and I think he's really good with his change of direction," Steckel said.
The season so far has been a change in direction for Mizzou's defense, which last year was sixth in the nation in points allowed (16.1 a game) and never gave up more than 31 points in a game. It's already given up more twice this season (37 to ASU, 38 to OU).
A surprisingly potent offense, in transition with sophomore quarterback James Franklin taking over, kept MU in those games. The reverse was anticipated.
Still, Steckel and MU coach Gary Pinkel are optimistic the defense will become more of an asset.
And with reason, including the return to full health of second-team All-Big 12 defensive end Jacquies Smith and more experience now for a secondary breaking in three new starters.
Breakdowns in pass defense, Pinkel has said since the ASU game, can't be attributed to coverage issues alone. It's a chicken-and-egg issue with not getting to the quarterback enough.
MU led the Big 12 in sacks last season with 38 in 13 games. It has eight in four games this season but just one vs. ASU and none against Oklahoma.
That goes beyond the line itself.
"When we send blitzers, our blitzers have to get there," Steckel said, adding, "You can't leave guys out on man to man coverage on an island for too long."
Against ASU, Steckel said, "If you really want to sit down and critique it and evaluate it, we generated a pass rush — we (just) didn't get any sacks."
Steckel recalled ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler scrambling for "80-something yards." In fact, Osweiler ran for 34, but Steckel may have been referring to the amount he ran around getting away from the rush.
Against OU, the problem was a bit different: the pace and rhythm of OU's passing. Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones often got rid of the ball so fast there was barely time to create a rush.
The brisk Sooners rattled off 87 plays against Mizzou; K-State is far more methodical, typically milking clock to average 71 plays a game, and leads the Big 12 in time of possession (35:19 a game).
"It gives me an extra 10 seconds to think," joked Steckel, who expects to need it against Snyder. "He makes sure you earn your money on game day trying to adjust to what he's doing."